A lottery is a procedure for distributing something, such as money or prizes, among many people by chance. In modern times, it often takes the form of a drawing in which participants select from numbered tickets or numbers. There are a variety of types of lotteries, including those that award scholarships and subsidized housing units, as well as those that offer cash prizes or the opportunity to play for big jackpots in sports. Some states have legalized state-run lotteries, which have become very popular and generate enormous amounts of revenue. Others use private companies to run state-based lotteries. Regardless of the type, lottery has become an important source of income for governments and private enterprises around the world.
The short story opens with a description of a small village in June as it gathers for the annual lottery, an event that is supposed to ensure a bountiful harvest. The villagers are excited but nervous as they wait to hear their names called. The simple, observed narration evokes an authentic feeling of the place and makes the reader feel part of the scene.
In the early seventeenth century, it became quite common in the Low Countries for public officials to organize lotteries to raise funds for a wide range of municipal usages. These were hailed as painless forms of taxation, and they became very popular. They eventually spread to the rest of Europe, and by the nineteenth century, it was standard practice for a large number of states to hold public lotteries.
Even though lottery participation is voluntary, it creates enormous excitement and dreams of tossing off the burden of working for the man for thousands of people. Some people spend their entire paychecks on tickets hoping to win a huge jackpot. However, the odds of winning are extremely low.
Cohen explores the underlying motivation of people who participate in lotteries, noting that they tend to be highly irrational. They have quote-unquote systems that don’t jibe with statistical reasoning, and they choose lucky numbers or stores or times of day to buy their tickets. They know the odds are long, but they’re convinced that there’s a tiny, glimmer of hope that they might be the one to hit it big.
A recurring theme in the piece is the need for a certain level of social mobility that is not available to everyone, and how the lottery plays into this desire. For people who are stuck in the middle class, a lottery is a last, best or only hope of moving up the ladder. And the fact that it’s so improbable only increases their excitement and the sense of possibility. Nevertheless, the lottery is an ugly underbelly, one that shouldn’t be supported by any moral sense. Rather, it should be abolished as an unnecessary evil that encourages irrational behavior.